It’s seemingly impossible to deny that climate change is now a reality that will continue to effect our local communities not only in Australia, but communities the world over. Gone are the days when the subject was one that existed solely in the realms of Hollywood disaster films, this year alone we have seen catastrophic floods, bush fires and erratic weather that continues to reek havoc on our ability to live out our day to day lives. But what is being done to address this issue, aside from mainstream news and major political parties using these events as scare tactics? Arts House in North Melbourne one of the City of Melbourne’s designated Relief Centres, are tackling the issue head on in Refuge, an experience that will allow community members to participate in disaster ready workshops hosted by the Red Cross, the activities facilitated by Arts House will also provide information that will help assist in the case of an emergency. Writer Jessi Lewis met with Angharad Wynne-Jones, Arts House Artistic Director over coffee to discuss the project.
Talk to us about the work, it seems such a broad concept, and one which would not come without it’s own set of challenges, what is the project’s key objective?
Refuge feels like it’s coming from quite a long engagement around art, culture and climate change and also thinking about how we respond and what we can do to activate ourselves in that space. It comes from that idea of trying to look at some of the trickier points of climate change. For me personally I feel like I’ve been in a space for a long time trying to imagine alternative futures, imagine different ways that we can be with each other and be a bit resistant to the idea. Thinking that if enough of us put enough energy into changing how we are, that we could halt the progression of it. Whilst a part of me still feels that way, another part of me realizes that this is happening, that the climatic disasters are happening every day, they’ve sort of become the new norm., they are happening across Australia and happening across the world. and the impacts of them are becoming much more clear, in terms of things like environmental refuges, how ill equipped we are even psychically in Australia to even imagine how we could walk towards that with an open heart.
In the bush fires a lot of the regional arts centre’s became relief centers, so thinking what if we if instead of displacing the arts programs and artists in those centre’s, what if we worked together with them and the emergency services, that was the concept. Then during the creative process we actually found out that Arts House is a designated official relief center, which we had no idea about when began the project, and that was kind of critical, because we then had to talk about the reality, when we are encouraging local residents to see this work we are also asking them to come and see what the relief center is.
What are some of the other cross-realities that have surfaced through the development of Refuge?
We had an intense lab with Emergency Management Victoria, Red Cross, and with some of the different service providers, homeless shelters and police, who all where talking and contributing and saying what they would do in that space. We then briefed the artist to look at different areas such as sleep, health and well being, communications and way finding, energy, light and warmth, the basic necessities. We’ve given each of those to an artist to think about and whilst some of those emergency services are very practical and pragmatic, what the research actually shows is that it’s how people are experiencing what ever assistance that are given that is the transforming aspect of the experience.
Does the idea of “home,” or the creating a temporary one, some what affect the experience?
The information shows, it’s those communities that actually are empowered to make decisions themselves, to create the space themselves, to help each other rather then differ to the expert, or rather when they work in collaboration, is when there is the most effective way of actually managing a crisis be it a five day flood or a bush fire. But in terms of the recovery aspect of it, its the communities that are really engaged in the shaping of the experience of their own experience that survive.
Is it possible that a stronger sense of community could be forged through this experience?
I think that can happen, whether it happens in a rehearsal we don’t know, we talked a long time about we were asking people to roll play, but no, we are not we are setting it up as an exercise for ourselves in the sense of a relief center. And anyone coming through that building, can be involved in some shape or form, that don’t have to play the role of someone who has been washed out from their homes but that information will be there and some of the services will be set up as if that is happening. Its potentially a complex space of what we think we are doing what an audience think we are doing and the fact that the artist are interrogating some of the power structures that are implicit in an emergency situation.
It is a dangerous concept to entertain, would you agree?
I think it feels like a slightly dangerous thing to say “get prepared”, asking “what would you pack in a time of disaster?”, and it feels like there is a kind of obligation for us to provide some really practical help for people having raised that as reality or possibility. There’s different set of responsibility in that context that are different too, although aligned to how we raise those questions in an art context only. The exciting thing is, Refuge, is a different way we are able to have a different conversation with the community around North Melbourne. This is a place that can belong to you, that you can use, that there are artists here that are interested in exploring that with you and alongside you, that feels like a really potentially potent set of relationships.
So is it fair to say you believe in the role art plays in pushing agenda or communicating ideas in a perhaps more constructive manner?
I mean I suppose it’s the experience of art that I think is its power, it’s the visceral lift, the performative experience, and the aspects of congregation and intimacy that can be achieved in live performance particularly. There are really subtle and powerful aspects of cultural shifts and change, and I think at Arts House, we have had a few works of late, that are really interesting work that are not didactic or only partly didactic, partly questioning and interrogative.
How have you prevented Refuge from becoming a didactic experience, is this something you actively tried to avoid?
I think you bring artists into the mix, and by nature, some are really happy to take on the didacticism role, but I think there is so many different approaches. One of the artists in Refuge is a Tongan Australian artist who spends half her life absolutely on the front line of activism around the Pacific islands going under water, but has an extraordinary practice which is body weather in some ways completely esoteric, resistant to narrative. She has those two practices co-existing really, where she situates her practice and how she talks about it, so while the practice might be liminal , non narrative and gestural, the way she’s framing it, means you can’t refuse her reality or presence or message some how. All the artists have different approaches to it some how, its complex and probably confusing but hopefully in a really good way.
We often talk about different ways of communicating what we do to different audiences or different interests, but Refuge has been really specific in that way. Because of Arts House being a relief centre we have done a lot of communications with the local neighborhood, which has clearly stated that we are a relief centre, asking them to come along on Saturday, that there will be some arts projects alongside some information about what to do in the time of an environmental disaster, really simple clear and helpful information for people who just want to know. Once their in the space though, does something else happen, do they get to engage in work that they might not of thought that they would do? That’s the experiment for us.
I mean, do we have a responsibility as artists and cultural centers to engage in with these quite ginormous ideas? I think yes, we do.
Refuge will take place on the weekend of the 9th July, for more information click here